Lawmakers chip away at the building block of society
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – Husbands and wives struggling to preserve their marriages in times of separation may find the battle against intruders more daunting as the N.C. House of Representatives passed legislation to further weaken laws against alienation of affection and criminal conversation.
House Bill 1110, sponsored by Rep. Melanie Goodwin (D-Richmond) and approved by a vote of 75-42, would mean that anyone hoping to woo a man or woman away from a marriage or commit adultery with him or her could do so without risk of being sued the minute the married couple separated, even if they had not filed separation papers or begun divorce proceedings.
Alienation of Affection is a civil action by a husband or wife taken against a third party when that party’s conduct has deprived the husband or wife of the love and affection of his or her spouse. Criminal conversation, also a civil action, allows a husband or wife to sue a third party for having sexual relations with his or her spouse. Currently these torts can be applied to behavior occurring at any time during a marriage and therefore give marriages some legal protection against potential intruders. If Goodwin’s bill becomes law, that won’t be the case.
“What the current bill says is …. if a husband moves out on Tuesday and the husband and a girlfriend have relations on Wednesday, that’s not alienation of affection or criminal conversation,” said Rep. Johnathan Rhyne (R-Lincoln), who opposed the measure and argued for two amendments that would make it less egregious.
“I think we ought to err on the side of trying to preserve marriages as opposed to saying ‘well, we separated yesterday, now everything goes,'” he said, pointing out that many couples are still working on their marriages and some are in counseling to do so, even while they are separated. “… If it is not criminal conversation for a girlfriend or boyfriend to move in during that time, that is going to damage counseling and will make a reconciliation less likely rather than more likely.”
“In North Carolina we have a one-year period while you are separated before you can get a divorce,” Rep. Rhyne added. “The reason we have that policy is that marriages are considered precious things. We have given a cooling-off period, a thinking period of a year to where the parties may reconcile.”
One of his amendments would have allowed the laws against alienation of affection and criminal conversation to be applied to actions occurring up until the date that a separation agreement is signed. The other would have clarified that post-separation acts by a person could be considered as corroborating evidence supporting other evidence that he or she committed acts during the marriage and prior to the date of separation.
But the bill’s proponents argued, in essence, that many couples may be ready to move on to other relationships before they have hashed out legal agreements regarding financial matters that may be part of the separation papers. Goodwin also said the additional wording regarding consideration of post-separation behavior as corroborating evidence was not necessary as there was nothing in the bill to prevent courts from doing so already. However, she also argued that allowing use of such evidence could mean that a friend of a separated person could be “hauled into court” over “very innocent acts.”
Rhyne pointed out that allowing post-separation acts to be used as corroborating evidence would simply make the bill consistent with the part of the alimony statute passed in 1997 regarding marital misconduct.
“It makes no sense to have it in one place and not in the other,” he said, especially since some backers of HB 1110 had said the bill was necessary to make the laws surrounding marriage and divorce more consistent. Nonetheless, the amendments failed.
Just as he had in committee hearings, Rep. Mark Hilton (R-Catawba) spoke against the bill in the House.
“Rep. Goodwin said something about how Rep. Rhyne’s amendment would gut her bill. Well, I believe that if this bill passes it will help gut any attempts to reconcile a marriage,” Hilton said. “What we are going to be doing, if this bill passes, is saying for these folks (who are separated) that it’s open season and anybody can go in and started winning the affections of this couple. … We should be doing things that would strengthen marriage, not attack it.”
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, lamented the bill’s passage in the House and agreed with Rep. Hilton’s assessment.
“These tort laws – alienation of affection and criminal conversation – are a reminder to those who want to defile a marriage that they are putting themselves at legal risk,” he said. “Weakening these laws is chipping away at the few remaining state statutes that uphold marriage as a building block of society.”